A Wondrous Tour of an Amazon Fulfillment Center
L: This is a photo showing the amazing way Amazon Fulfillment Centers work--especially the ones that ship out "small stuff."
Jim and I are in Seattle for his quarterly NBEIC meeting (National Business Economic Issues Council). These meetings often include tours of a local area's business. In the past we've seen such places as the Port of Mobile, an Exxon refinery, the FedEx shipping facility in Memphis, a surgical procedure at the Cleveland Clinic and so much more! This meeting included a tour of an Amazon Fulfillment Center.
In the photo is a shelving unit, showing cubbies of various sizes. All the inventory of the facility is stored in units (many, many, many units) just like this. The orange thing under the shelving unit is a robot. The robot lifts the shelving unit and makes it a mobile shelving unit.
When inventory comes to the Center, a human places the incoming product into whatever space it fits into on a shelving unit. Through the miracle of computers and bar codes, the software system logs the exact location of the product. The only "rule" to follow is that the same product cannot be put into contiguous bins. Otherwise, product placement is random and is driven merely by the question, "Does it fit here?"
So, the warehouse (such a small word for such a big place--like as big as 28 football fields) has loads of filled storage units. Then there are pickers who are guided by a computer system at their work station. The robot brings a storage unit to the picker. The computer shows a picture of the product on the screen, and the location of the product on the unit. The picker pulls the product, scans the bar code and places it into a bin whose light is flashing. The computer "knows" what goes in each bin, and when it has all it's supposed to have, the picker shoves the bin onto a conveyor.
These bins are not filled for individual customers but for delivery locations. At another step, other pickers will sort out the items in a bin for individual orders.
That means that the warehouse has big open spaces where robots move storage units hither and yon, pick and pack stations for humans to sort and handle products, and many, many fast conveyor systems to move bins and boxes. I love this kind of thing because it is so darn clever.
A few of the things I learned:
Random is the most efficient way to store things (as long as you can find them again).
Amazon employs 160 economists!!!!
Amazon mostly hires full-time employees for the warehouse jobs and offers benefits including 90% paid education in any field. The work is repetitive and hard (focusing all the time is not easy) so turnover is a potential problem. That's why they are generous with benefits since it costs less to pay for educations than it does to train employees frequently.
Fulfillment facilities that use humans who walk to the storage units to pick products employ about the same number of people as facilities that use the robots to move the products to the humans. The difference is that robot-intense Centers can hold more product per square foot so Amazon saves on real estate and building costs.
For more information about Amazon Fulfillment Centers, check out these articles: